Staying out of the heat (how to reduce the risk of sex discrimination claims based on dress codes)

Staff dress codes and the risk of sex discrimination is back in the news. Bus drivers in France are turning up for work in skirts in response to their employer’s refusal to allow them to wear shorts during the current heatwave. But what are the rules on dress codes and how do you reduce the risk of a sex discrimination claim? Here are 5 key points to keep you on track.

  1. Make sure that, taken as a whole, your dress code does not treat employees of one sex less favourably than the other. The fact that you require only male employees to wear a shirt and tie, for example, is unlikely to amount to sex discrimination provided the dress code for female employees is, overall, to achieve an equivalent level of smartness.
  2. Do not require female employees to wear high heels. This issue was the subject of much media coverage and a report by the House of Commons Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee earlier in the year. It suggested that requiring female employees to wear high heels is likely to be harmful to their health and may therefore lead to a successful sex discrimination claim.
  3. If you relax your dress code policy over the summer months, make sure that the relaxed policy still applies to male and female employees equally, albeit that specific clothing requirements may be different. If female employees are allowed to have bare legs and sandals, for example, are your male employees allowed to have short-sleeved, open-necked shirts?
  4. Avoid confusion and issues arising by having a clear dress code policy in place. It is good practice to include an overarching requirement for all employees to dress in a professional and business like way, or to dress in a casual but tidy and presentable way, before listing the specific clothing requirements for each sex. That way, you are more likely to take care to ensure that the clothing requirements, overall, achieve an equivalent result for male and female employees.
  5. Get your employees on board. As with most things, if employees understand your reasoning and the consistency of your approach, they are more likely to accept your rules.If you need advice on dress code issues in your workplace or would like to get a policy in place, please get in touch.

    Claire Collinge
    Partner, Workwise Legal LLP